Is Fender phasing out swamp ash just the tip of the iceberg?

Climate change and an invasive beetle could see the wood become much more scarce.

Fender guitar, + an ash tree

Image: Matt Cardy / Getty

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Swamp ash, up until earlier this year, was a staple of Fender guitars. It then announced that it would be phasing out the wood in most cases, reserving it only for special occasions – historical models and the highest-end offerings.

Now, Scientific American has taken a deep look as to what problems swamp ash supply is faced with. Chief among them is climate change, which has led to more intense rainfall across the USA – and due to how swamp ash is harvested, this throws up a unique problem. Swamp ash trees are capable of enduring seasonal flooding, and as they’re partially submerged for months, their cells are thin-walled and have large gaps between them – creating the wood’s trademark resonant, low-density nature.

When the seasonal flooding of the lower Mississippi river recedes, that’s when lumber companies can drive heavy logging equipment into the swamps. Norman Davis, former president and a current adviser for Mississippi’s Anderson-Tully Lumber tells Scientific American that “once the river goes back within its banks, the ground is just as safe to cross with heavy logging equipment as a Walmart parking lot.”

Anderson-Tully Lumber was once Fender’s biggest swamp ash supplier, but changing climates and more intense flooding events have led to more difficult harvests, with the swamp’s bottomlands becoming “pretty much inaccessible the last two and a half years,” according to Davis.

Scientific American cites various studies linking the heavier rain to climate change: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance, found that between June 2018 and July 2019, the U.S. experienced its 12 wettest months on record. As well as this a 2018 study in Nature showed the area’s flooding has become more frequent and severe over the past 150 years.

Climate change isn’t the only threat to the wood, either, with the emerald ash borer also damaging the US’ ash tree population. The insect’s larvae tunnel through the trees, disrupting their ability to transport water and nutrients. Jennifer Koch, a Forest Service biologist tells Scientific American that while the emerald ash borer is yet to reach Mississippi, “it’s only a matter of time” until it does, as “it’s the most rapid-spreading insect we’ve seen attacking trees in the US.”

There are of course alternatives, such as red alder, and Koch and others are trying to breed more resilient ash trees. But it may soon be the case that even the most prized Fender models have to forgo swamp ash.

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